Friday, June 20, 2014

The Problem With Puto

Mexicans are up in arms at FIFA's investigation of discriminatory misconduct by Mexican fans in Brazil, who have been heard to chant the word "puto", which means "faggot" at opposing teams. Mexicans only recently are slowly becoming aware of their own deeply ingrained prejudices, mostly thanks to the internet. We are always amazed that slurs that to us are perfectly common, such as "puto" or "blackie", are found offensive by others. "We said it in jest", or "it's a term of endearment", some of us will protest.
Mexicans will say that the word "puto" in this context was not uttered in the spirit of discriminating against any gays. This is true. The Mexican fans that were so maturely and in such a sportsmanlike fashion screaming "puto" at the opposing team were not berating any particular player because of their homosexuality. In Mexico, the word "puto" has become an all-purpose insult, not necessarily aimed at gay men. Think of Alec Baldwin or Jonah Hill hurling "faggot" at the paparazzi. People choose to neglect the fact that the original intention of both "faggot" and "puto" is to denigrate homosexuals, and when used against straight men, to disparage them by accusing them of being gay. It's the worst thing you can say to a guy (in Mexico, without mentioning his mother). Even if it is directed at the straightest man on Earth, the connotation is sissy, weakling, crybaby, coward, less than a man.
In Mexico, people are making outraged jokes at the whole situation. How dare FIFA, a corrupt organization with no ethical credibility, chastise Mexican fans for their innocent chanting? A jokey letter to FIFA is making the internet rounds. Written rather pathetically in bad English, it clarifies the definition of homosexual as a person who likes someone of their own gender and the definition of puto as "whoever reads this". It's funny, but that is exactly the crux of the matter: people prefer to ignore the fact that the insult, whether directed at gays or not, is inextricably linked to homophobia. And the word homophobia has in itself become a bit of an empty cliche, so let me remind you: it means fear (and loathing) of homosexuals.

Now, I use slurs (in the privacy of my own mind) and I hate unbridled political correctness, which also largely thanks to the internet, has created a climate, at least here in the US, of self-righteous censorship and mob accusations of racism and discrimination that threaten to turn everybody into either the thought police or hypersensitive whiners. Now college teachers need to warn students that there may be "offensive" passages in books dealing with the usual depredations in human history. People scream "racism" indiscriminately. Everybody is a victim. It's as if we are pretending that we are better than we are and that having prejudices is not the norm in human behavior. Newsflash: it is and we all have them. But that doesn't mean that people should not be aware that words have history, they have power, they can keep others down. The anti-discrimination Fare network, which reported this behavior to FIFA, considers "puto" a slur because it is, no matter how good humored the usage. They don't know that in Mexico people think there's little wrong with it. This is common. We liberally use slurs and then pretend they are not racist or derogatory. By the same token, but inversely, I have heard some fellow Mexicans try to avoid the use of the word "judío" (Jew) in my presence because they think it is a horrible slur. It is not, but they resort to rather amusing euphemisms, asking me if I am a Hebrew or an Israelite (do I look like I'm 5000 years old?). And when I say I am a Jew, they flinch because in their minds "Jew" means someone terrible. Obviously, the more ingrained the prejudice, the deeper the lack of awareness.
So let's simply turn the tables for a moment. I bet Mexican soccer fans would be delighted if their rivals would disparage our team in the same good-natured fashion. The Mexican team, a bunch of putos? I didn't think so.
I can understand to a certain point the frustration of Mexicans with the solemn humorlessness of the correctness brigade. We are great at humor, but still lag in the awareness department. At the second decade of the 21st century, however, it is about time that we look into our dark little Mexican souls and simply acknowledge our deepest prejudices. It is the first step towards diminishing them.
Something else gnaws at me. Forget about political correctness for a moment. Why is it necessary to root for our team by insulting the others? It is bad form, vulgar and completely unnecessary. Whatever happened to our good manners?